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Kodak introduced its 135 line of film in 1934. It was the mainstay of journalists and hobbyists until the advent of good affordable digital cameras. Most people* who have taken their photography at all seriously have worked with it, including me.
When I was about sixteen, I suddenly discovered my parents’ darkroom1. I’d asked for, and got, a reasonable 35mm SLR camera for the previous Christmas (a Pentax ME Super; I have it still). I read a lot of photography magazines and shot a few rolls of slide film (all the rage at the time).
But one day I was in the basement looking for something or other, and remembered that my parents had said that space was light-tight and set up for developing and printing2. And as I moved all the junk off of the enlarger and found the rather elderly chemicals, I realized that I was fascinated by the idea of developing and printing my own pictures3. Absent some substantial investment, that meant black and white print film, so I abandoned slides and color. (Besides, this was going back to basics. Foundational learning. The heart of photography. I talked like that a lot.)
My parents4 handed me a beaten-up, chemical-stained copy of Horenstein’s Black and White Photography and left me to it.
For about six months, I did nothing else with my leisure time. I’d get a roll or two of film after school on a Friday, shoot pictures in the park on the Saturday, and spend the Sunday in the darkroom developing the previous day’s roll and printing the previous week’s negatives.
My mother said my photos looked like I’d just pointed the camera everywhere and taken pictures. I was (and am) obsessed with pattern and detail: the ways that trees grow and distribute their foliage, the shadow of a window screen on eggshells, the effect of strong side lighting on a single ornament. I struggled to get the camera and enlarger to reveal what I loved about the world.
And one day in the early autumn I realized that I was not Ansel Adams, and indeed had no idea who I was or wanted to be as a photographer. And so I piled the stuff back on the enlarger, left my bottles of developer and fixer and my boxes of paper where I’d found my parents’ old supplies, and locked the door again.
And because life does imitate the circular art of storytelling, my sister wandered into that small, dark space under the stairs fifteen years later, cleared all the junk off of the enlarger and dug out all the chemicals. She photographs people, and does beautiful, painful things with the camera that would never occur to me.
I got back into photography a few years ago, taking more detailed, patterned pictures on a digital cameraphone, but it was a mild dilettantism in comparison. There’s simply nothing like a teenaged darkroom obsession.